Saturday, January 19, 2013

Strawberry Panic! Review

Overall rating: 5.5 / 10

For starters, I should note that I dislike shoujo as a genre. But I do like shoujo-ai to some extent. There are complex reasons for that, but the one which is probably the most important is that from my point of view, female characters in a typical shoujo manga/anime are nice, while male characters are not. I don't appreciate how men are depicted in shoujo in general. And if I dislike the characters themselves, surely I won't appreciate watching them playing romantic leads, while shoujo is mostly about romance. I also have a thing for female same-sex relationships, but that shouldn't necessary be in the shoujo genre. It's just that I appreciate shoujo-ai more than a straight shoujo.

Minamoto Chikaru, the best girl in the show
I would call Strawberry Panic! a half-good show. If you take all the things which were good in this anime, that would be about a half of it. Basically, the show consists of two typical love triangles (Shizuma - Nagisa - Tamao and Amane - Hikari - Yaya) and a lot of peripheral material with lots of supporting characters. Nagisa's part of the romance content is a messy one. That's what makes it good and interesting. Hikari's part is a plain one. That's what makes it boring as fuck. Of course, the story wouldn't be complete without Hikari's part, but I think it should had been reduced at least by half. It was left as it is probably in order to parallel with Nagisa's part till the very end. But there weren't nearly enough material for Hikari's story, so they just repeated the same moves several times and then used cliched plot device to create some shitty drama out of the blue. Regarding the supporting characters, most of them don't have their own subplot and just serve as living decorations and screen time fillers. Still, I think that Chikaru is the best girl in the show by a landslide, regardless of (or to some extent due to) the fact that she doesn't participate in the Special Olympics called "romance". I also liked Momomi and always empathized with her, even though she and Kaname were meant to be antagonists. The rest of the dramatis personae didn't impress me at all. Especially those kouhai girls, who obviously didn't stand a chance from the beginning but persistently appeared here and there.

Catholic setting: Hikari and Yaya in the choir
The setting - I liked it a lot. I only have a vague idea of what all-girl catholic schools in Japan are like. Regarding the schools in the show, the "catholic" part is obviously just for decoration, fortunately. There were after-meal prayers, but no christian propaganda prohibiting intimate relationships, especially homosexual. The setting fits the plot or rather the setting defines the plot. Most of the yuri/shoujo-ai anime/manga depict girls dating each other like it's the most natural thing to do, while it is not. That's why I would say that most of the yuri/shoujo-ai anime/manga are quite unrealistic. There are also more serious yuri/shoujo-ai anime/manga which explore the theme of female (homo)sexuality and acceptance of lesbian relationships in the society. It's much more realistic, but it's not so cute anymore. Strawberry Panic! is somewhere in the middle. It completely ignores the serious topics, but it is realistic, while also cute. You can expect that among several hundreds of girls, studying in three isolated all-girls schools, there would be some couples. And that surely won't pose a problem in those kind of society, while the vast majority of Strawberry Panic! characters are not lesbians, of course. However, experiencing some degree of affection (probably romantic) towards someone is a pretty natural thing for girls in their age and circumstances. Since only two pairs of characters were openly shown having an intimate relationship, that's completely within my expectations.

Main characters, Nagisa and Shizuma are talking at the piano
Music is what left me with some strange impressions. The composer is Yoshihisa Hirano. I knew him from the Death Note, Tatakau Shisho and Break Blade series. He is one of my favorite composers, actually. His usual style is imitation of classical pieces which he does quite well. He always uses authentic acoustic instruments besides synthesizers. He is particularly good in writing climactic pieces with choir and orchestra, but not as good in writing lyrical and melancholic pieces for instruments like piano, violin and oboe. He wrote a very decent music for Strawberry Panic! It just probably doesn't have the right touch and atmosphere. The "classical" parts don't fit with the mood. And the "modern" parts are just too short, too fleeting (like "Kaori no Theme" for example). What the soundtrack lacks is a solid romantic theme or/and the personal theme for the main characters, which would serve as the theme of love. There is only the theme of fate ("Unmei"), but it is not suited for "happy" romantic scenes. And so, the situation is like this: I really appreciate listening to the Strawberry Panic! OST as the standalone piece of music, but actually I wasn't impressed by the music while watching the show. I would also note, that the Strawberry Panic! OST are very similar in both style and touch with the Kannazuki no Miko OST (another shoujo-ai anime) which is one of my favorites, but the latter one is stronger in my opinion.

In conclusion, I just want to note two things, which I can explain in details only in the spoiler part of the review. The first one is that I really liked how the show ended. It somehow caught me completely off-guard. And the ending was by no means sudden or unpredictable, I just didn't see it coming because I had different expectations (I explain why in the second part). But the ending is very righteous in my opinion. The second one is that the show is full of what is called "mono no aware". It's a recurring motif which runs through the show and I deeply appreciated it. It is also strongly related to the reason why I think that the show's ending is "righteous". Actually, I would have rated the show much higher if it wasn't that boring.

Continue to the second part (spoilers)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Accel World Review

Overall rating: 8.0 / 10

Every popular anime has a considerable amount of haters. Surely, it should have even greater number of fans - that's what makes it "popular". Than what about anime, which have many haters - but only a very little number of fans? Well, that situation is a bit strange. Especially if the anime in question is not some kind of well known "trash", but actually the one with a pretty fine average score. The Accel World anime situation is like that. From what I've seen, the general opinion on AW of the international anime community is Haters Gonna Hate "good" or at least "fine". Very few people (I am one of them) see AW as a gem, but huge number of people hate AW and even consider it unwatchable. The funny thing is that you will be 100% sure if you are actually one of the later just by watching it for 3 minutes. If the answer is "no", then there is a good chance of you enjoying this show to the end.

The primary source of controversy regarding AW is its male lead, Arita Haruyuki. It's hard to say what provokes people more: his visual design or his personality. The facts are that Haru is short and fat, he is cowardly and he gets bullied in school. His visual design is distinct and peculiar, that's also a fact. From what I knew, Sunrise depicted Haru in the way he thinks of himself, not how he is actually meant to look like according to the novels. All the rest are not facts, but impressions. The popular impression is that Haru in the anime is ugly and miserable and that his unrealistic visual style makes his ugliness grotesque and basically doesn't fit with the show. One could also have cognitive dissonance seeing a girl (or even girls) falling for someone so ugly and pathetic. My impressions are very different. I never minded Haru being short and fat to begin with, but I think that his visual design and animation style actually make his appearance extremely charismatic and very appealing. It probably also brings some comedic touch, but that's also perfectly fine for me. As for his personality, I find it nontrivial at the very lest. The thing which probably irritates many people the most is not how unmanly he is, but that he never changes or at least shows strong desire to change. And that's what makes his character interesting in my eyes. The one thing I like about Haru is that he knows his place and never pretends to be what he is not. And he does have his own pride, on the other hand. He is probably a bit too emotional, but it just adds up to his charisma. I clearly find this kind of male lead both more interesting and more appealing than your typical Japanese schooler kind of protagonist.

Haruyuki's and Kuroyukihime's VR avatars standing next to their real bodies
Regarding AW's female lead, there were little to none controversy. Practically everyone agrees that Kuroyukihime is a godlike tier girl. There are tons of people who watched AW only because of Kuroyukihime and there definitely would be more of those if not for the fact, that she is with Haruyuki most of the time. As for me, you can guess that I don't mind her being with Haru at all. I should also note that KYH is presently in my personal ~top3 of the best female anime characters of all time. The rest of the Accel World's female cast is also exceptionally strong: I would say that all of the supporting female characters in AW are better than female leads of most of the shows I like. There is a simple reason for that. As AW revolves around the "Brain Burst" virtual reality fighting game, most of its characters are people strongly related to this game. And I surely have a thing for good looking female hardcore gamers.

While I did say that AW is about people playing virtual reality fighting game, I would also underline that it's primarily about people, not the game. Usually, when I finish watching a title, I rewatch favorite scenes from it, if there are any. Regarding AW, I've rewatched many scenes from it several times, but all of those were actually dialogues, not the battles. So, from my point of view, AW is not an action genre anime, even if it looks like one. Still, one of the most impressive aspect of the AW anime is it's pace. The very first episode is particularly strong. It does the usual job: introducing characters and explaining the setting, just doing it mostly in action, so on one hand it leaves impression of being "information giving" type of episode, on the other hand it feels very lively and eventful. It sets the pace and the whole anime maintains perfect balance between action, character development and disclosing information. I praise Sunrise for doing so great job animating the Accel World novels: they stayed faithful to the original, cut the most minor details and never lost the atmosphere of Kawahara Reki's books.

Avatars in the Accelerated World: "Sky Raker" next to Haruyuki's "Silver Crow"
I won't say much about graphics and animation quality - from my point of view it's just OK. There were monsters of graphics in the year 2012 (Hyouka and K to name some) and there were shows that looks just too shitty for the year 2012 (Code Breaker for example). Accel World is neither of those. What's much more interesting for me is music. There are two criteria for soundtrack to be considered "good": to fit its respective show and to be good as standalone piece of music. Regarding the latter, I can't say that Accel World OST is as strong as my most favorite ones, but it's just one or two steps below them. But as for the first criterion, AW's soundtrack is just impeccable. Completely brilliant. I also appreciate how they write such a magnificent piece as "Blood History" only for be used just once as the background music for the Kuroyukihime's monologue in the third episode. That's what made an already good scene remarkable.

There is only one major flaw I can see in this show, and this flaw is solely Kawahara Reki's fault. It's numbers. I highly appreciate the world of 2046 that Kawahara Reki's depicted. I like both the idea of brain–computer interfaces aka Neuro Linkers and the concept of widespread augmented reality. I also appreciate the "Brain Burst" virtual reality fighting game he described. Since I know that Kawahara Reki has zero technical background in the respective areas, I never had any expectations of him to maintain any decent degree of technical realism. That's fine with me. There is only one thing that Kawahara-san definitely could have done and should have done, but that he never did. He did not put any thoughts into numbers. As the result he totally fucked up the realism not only in technical aspects, but also in the economical ones. Inconsistencies in numbers stand out just too much, one needs only the common sense to notice them (I listed them in the second part of the review). Unfortunately, it's just Kawahara's plain laziness and remissness, Sunrise could have done nothing about that. I can't really say that those things seriously damaged my overall impressions of the Accel World anime. But they are the reason why I can't rate it higher than 8.0/10 despite it being my favorite show of the year 2012.

Continue to the second part (spoilers)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Kawahara Reki

Kawahara Reki
If there is a man in the anime related industry for whom the year 2012 was especially lucky, that would be Reki Kawahara. He is the author of the Sword Art Online and Accel World ranobe series, both of which were animated in 2012. The rule of thumb is while only the most popular ranobe series get animated, sales of the light novels rocket when the anime adaptation is announced. You can also guess that one successful series would naturally draw attention to the other series from the same author. Yet, to think that a single person as a writer could simultaneously occupy both the first and the second place in the list of top-selling light novels in Japan with two different series - that's an extremely scarce situation. That's Reki Kawahara for you.

My policy is to never read anything (implying manga and ranobe) that has a good chance to be animated in the foreseeable future. Basically, I prefer to watch anime adaptation first and then read the original. It's just that anime as an art form currently has a higher priority for me than manga and ranobe. Even though, originals often left better overall impression than anime adaptations. Speaking of Reki Kawahara, I've read the first four volumes of both SAO and AW barely managing to resist temptation to continue, due to a hope for the second seasons of both shows. I think that I grasp the general idea of what that man is doing.

Kawahara Reki is actually a man who sold the same thing twice. Both of his series revolve around single phenomenon scientifically called brain–computer interface (BCI). And also, both of his series are about games. Virtual reality massive multiplayer online games to be precise. The genres would be VRMMO RPG for Sword Art Online and VRMMO fighting game for Accel World. A peek into the distant future of the current computer gaming. There are ongoing debates on imageboards and anime forums on whether SAO and AW set in the alternative worlds or just in the different timelines (events of SAO begins in the year 2023 while AW describes the year 2046). But the technologies involved are clearly the same. I must note that Kawahara-san obviously have neither even the slightest technical background in neurobiology, nor the knowledge of the computer science. He does have experience in the MMO gaming, though. He understands and appeals to gamer's psychology to the degree only insiders could do. If that's the case, one could guess that gamers are Kawahara's natural and most faithful audience. I have an impression that it's actually quite the opposite. Gamers are people who understand better than anyone else how roughly and incompetently Kawahara's virtual worlds are made. The real Kawahara's audience is much wider and way less meticulous, fortunately. And his strength lies in his ability to depict humans, not computer games.

Sword Art Online Volume 1 cover
If there is a single main idea or better said message in both Kawahara's works, from my point of view that would be "there is no such thing as the other side". It's hard to imagine VR-related series not having the contrast between the virtual reality and the real world as one of its primary themes. And then, there can generally be one of the following conclusions or morals: either that real world is always better than any VR simply because it is real, or that good enough virtual reality may be actually better than the real world. What I really appreciate about Reki Kawahara is that he states neither of those. He instead underlines that VR (namely games) is basically a part of the real world and you always stay yourself whether you're acting in VR or IRL. So any experience one can receive while being in VR and any relations one can build there are by no means "virtual". As a former hardcore gamer, I'm absolutely sure that Kawahara-san does actually believe in what he writes. Also he uses completely different plot devices in SAO and AW to expose those ideas. And because of it, the series have completely different touch and atmosphere. Also, I should note that while AW is smooth and solid, SAO actually consists of very distinct story arcs, which have pretty different touch and atmosphere themselves. From what I've seen, most people find the second arc pretty disappointing compared to the first one (which is especially bad because the SAO anime stops at the end of the second arc), but praise more recent volumes. As for me, I'm more disappointed by the fact that the first arc isn't nearly as strong as it could have been; from my point of view it had nearly endless potential in terms of atmosphere and emotional drama, but Kawahara-san decided that the mood of the story shouldn't be too dark.

Accel World Volume 1 cover
Looking at the year 2012 ranobe sales, SAO does nearly three times better than AW both in cumulative sales and sales per volume. When in comes to Blu-ray anime sales, SAO did more than four times better for the first volume and I have a strong feeling that this gap will increase for the volumes yet to come. That's the situation in Japan and as for the international anime community, judging from MyAnimeList popularity rating and average scores, SAO are clearly far above AW. Naturally, you can consider that between the two Kawahara Reki's series Sword Art Online is definitely the primary one. As for me, I can't really say that I like SAO more than AW or that I see Accel World as a "secondary product". And neither do Kawahara-san, judging from the fact that he steadily refuse to drop AW (volume 13 scheduled to be released on February 2013) in favor of SAO, despite immense difficulties of running two popular series at the same time.

As for the recent anime adaptations, I'm going to review both of them in the near future. Right now, I would say that Sunrise did a great job, making the Accel World anime an example of what can be called "perfect adaptation". Staying 95% faithful to the original, omitting only the most insignificant details and reworking a couple of scenes into those with the same meaning but even stronger touch. Unfortunately, I can't say that A-1 Pictures did a good job as well animating SAO. They didn't cut any scenes (for the first story arc at least), but they lose tons of important information, especially regarding character's thoughts, emotions and motivation. They also simplified the composition, inserting side stories from the second volume into main plot in  chronological order. As a result, the SAO anime turned out to be extremely messy and spasmodic, leaving very confusing impression. So, if you have interest in Reki Kawahara's stories, I strongly recommend to go with the anime for Accel World, but as for Sword Art Online reading the books is the only choice.